Patient Stories

The Olympic Spirit Lives in These Healthcare Victories

Jul. 27, 2021

These patients and their care teams went for the gold in the face of serious challenges.

The Olympic spirit is grit. It’s determination in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It’s applying science to defy gravity. Being lifted by those who believe in you to propel you forward. Using strength and skill to reach the finish line and crossing it by sheer resolve. Committing to do whatever it takes to come out on top.

UC Health celebrates those who embody the Olympic spirit every day in Greater Cincinnati. The patients, families, clinicians, researchers and scientists who never quit. Who never give up on the quest for better outcomes. Who turn anguish into action. Who know deep down that a one-in-a-million shot is worth taking. Every. Single. Time.

Theirs are the stories of tenacity, passion and hope. Victory in the face of obstacles that life threw in their way. Those who turned overwhelmed into overcome. These are your neighbors with Olympic-sized ambition, and the faith and fight to claim their win.

(tə-ˈna-sə-tē) – resolve, persistence, determination

No Giving Up: Epilepsy Researcher Draws on Personal Experience in Search for a Cure

Christin Godale was first diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 2 years old. She remembers seizures that overtook her body as a child and waking to fear on the faces of her family.

“Ever since I was little, I have wanted to experience the privilege of living life not burdened by chronic disease,” she said. “There are many times I wanted to give up.”

Today, she is driven by the search for a cure. Not just as a person living with epilepsy, but as a doctoral candidate in the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Graduate Program.

“Christin is a remarkable story of powering through a disability as an advocate and researcher,” said Michael Privitera, MD, director of the epilepsy center at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute and professor in the Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine at the UC College of Medicine. Dr. Privitera serves as Christin’s epileptologist.

“Just like her research is designed to help others with epilepsy, she works tirelessly at the local and national level to advocate for better understanding of epilepsy and for more research funding,” Dr. Privitera continued.

“When I was a little kid, I wished that I had a person with epilepsy to look up to. I had many dreams, but people told me that I could not achieve them because of my diagnosis,” Christin says. “I want to break that stigma and let the patient epilepsy community know that anything is possible.”

Christin credits her UC Health care team for empowering her to dedicate her life to her work in epilepsy research. “Over my life, I’ve had many doctors, but I have never before experienced this level of care, professionalism and passion. I am incredibly thankful I have found my forever care team at UC Health.”

While Christin still experiences seizures and impacts associated with epilepsy, she has partnered with her care team to take greater control of her health so she can lead the way for others with epilepsy.

“I want to show epilepsy patients and caregivers alike that epilepsy does not have to stop you from pursuing your greatest ambitions.

“Epilepsy does not define me. I choose never to give up every day of my life.”

Life Is a Marathon: Runner Laces Up Once Again After Years of Debilitating Pain

Lauralee Wheat was the picture of health as a personal trainer, golfer and avid marathoner until a car crash in 2014 that caused compression injuries in her lower back.

She went through surgery to repair two of her lower vertebrae only to have the unthinkable happen: a second car crash a year later. Another surgery was ordered to place a cage and fuse her spine.

The outcome was more pain and fewer options for relief. The marathons were over. Even household tasks became unbearable. She was advised a third surgery could result in permanent nerve damage.

“I was in constant pain, and no other surgeon would help me,” Lauralee says. “I was literally bedridden with no quality of life at all. The only way I could cope was to keep watching positive stories about people who overcame the odds.”

Things started to change for Lauralee with a visit to Joseph Cheng, MD, Frank H. Mayfield Chair of Neurological Surgery and professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. Dr. Cheng is also a complex spinal neurosurgeon at the UC Gardner Neuroscience Institute at UC Health.

Nearing the point of giving up and disappointed with her past experiences with doctors, Lauralee armed herself with a list of questions ahead of her first appointment. When she went into the office, Lauralee was surprised to see her images were already up.

And Dr. Cheng was prepared with a list of his own: two treatment options for Lauralee with detailed advice on the risks and benefits of both approaches.

“I did not have to ask one question I had on my paper because he answered them as we discussed the issue with my back and options for treatment,” Lauralee says.

Dr. Cheng discovered that the cage from Lauralee’s previous surgery had become displaced and was scarred directly into her nerve. The recommended surgery, a posterior lumbar interbody fusion PLIF, would be extremely complex.

“It’s why many surgeons would not want to operate, but we see these complicated cases more often [at UC Health],” Dr. Cheng says. “I think the differentiating factor is the fact we are subspecialists in our field.”

Lauralee agreed to pursue Dr. Cheng’s recommendation for surgery. She was then in for months of rehabilitation and recovery. There were dark days, but Lauralee’s care team pushed her forward.

After a grueling three months where even a simple walk would exhaust her, Lauralee turned a corner. She was told she could return to a place she never thought she would see again: the gym.

“Dr. Cheng and his team encouraged me to go to the gym and stressed that physical fitness is very important. This motivated me even more knowing that they were encouraging me to do something I didn’t think that I would ever be able to do,” Lauralee says.

“I had to remind myself that I was not going to go back to the gym at the level I was at before all of the back surgeries and that there was nothing to be ashamed of,” Lauralee recalls. “Month after month, I was lifting more, running more and things became more like the me I remembered.”

As Lauralee advanced, she was able to complete a 5K with her husband and later participated in the Flying Pig Half Marathon in 2019.

“I am so blessed to have had Dr. Cheng as my surgeon. Because of him and his team, I have my life back,” Lauralee proudly says today. “If it was not for him doing this surgery so meticulously, I truly believe I’d still be bedridden dealing with chronic pain every day.”

(ˈpa-shən) – devotion, unflagging, enthusiasm

A Doctor’s Care, A Mother’s Love: Embryo Adoption Creates the Family They Always Wanted

Kari and Chris Stewart were a young married couple eager to start a family. After months of trying unsuccessfully to become pregnant, they turned to science for answers.

They discovered Chris had male factor infertility, which would make traditional treatments for conception nearly impossible.

The Stewarts investigated their options to begin the journey to pregnancy and discovered embryo adoption. The process allows couples going through in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to donate embryos that did not result in pregnancy to other couples to help them experience childbirth.

Kari and Chris were successful in adopting 14 embryos, but then hit another roadblock. The reproductive endocrinology and infertility practice that had been treating them refused to implant the embryos.

That’s when the Stewarts turned to the UC Health Center for Reproductive Health, the only comprehensive academic patient care center in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky that focuses on fertility and reproductive disorders.

Suruchi S. Thakore, MD, medical director of in-vitro fertilization at UC Health and assistant professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the UC College of Medicine, started working with the Stewarts in 2016. After many months of emotional complications, the dream of having a child finally seemed within reach.

“When Dr. Thakore told us she was willing to take on our case, those emotions quickly turned into action,” Kari said. “She outlined different timelines and protocols, letting us know that she would be ready to move forward whenever we were. She gave us our first glimmer of hope.”

Dr. Thakore was more than a clinician to the Stewards. They see her as one of their most ardent coaches and supporters. “Like a true coach, she is with us every step of the way. Through the good and bad, ups and downs. She both sits in the sadness and celebrates victories with us.”

The Stewarts’ lives were about to change forever. When another doctor was scheduled to perform their latest embryo transfer, Kari was nervous. Dr. Thakore’s schedule opened at the last moment, relieving Kari’s fears.

“She showed up for me in the most meaningful way. She came to my transfer, transferred two beautiful embryos, and we now have a baby boy from that day,” Kari says as a proud mom. “My care team seems like they're in this fight with me. I never feel alone.”

Kari and Chris returned to UC Health to continue growing their family and welcomed a second son in February 2021.

“The UC Health Center for Reproductive Health believed in us when no other clinic did. Dr. Thakore said ‘yes’ to building our family when other doctors told us ‘no’. Dr. Thakore never lost hope that we would be parents.”

‘I Was Their Purpose’: Care Team Inspires Local Mom in the Fight of Her Life

Karrie Owens made a call to 911 just days before Thanksgiving in 2020. She was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and managing a fever that wouldn’t go away. But this day was different.

Karrie could not breathe.

An ambulance rushed Karrie, a 48-year-old mother of two, to the Emergency Department at UC Health’s West Chester Hospital. The scans of her lungs did not look good. Karrie started preparing for the worst.

“At first, I was panicking trying to get my affairs in order so my children would not be lost and in an unknown, unexpected situation,” Karrie recalls.

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged and hospitals across the nation filled with patients just like her, Karrie took notice of the passion of her care team working tirelessly to save her life.

First came the pictures of her children. The simple act of her care team posting those photos in her room lit a fire within Karrie. “It turned into a fight situation versus flight,” Karrie said.

She recalls how her care then transcended medicine. “They sat with me and talked me through every single second of every day. They prayed with me. They never gave up on me and never let me give up on myself.”

Nearly two months after than 911 call, Karrie was finally well enough to return to work full time. She looks back with admiration at the science that fueled her recovery, and the compassion that brought her home.

“Every day I felt special. I was noticed. I was cared for, and I was their purpose,” Karrie said. “I think they wanted me to heal and improve just as badly as I did.”

As a COVID-19 survivor, Karrie encourages those who have not yet been vaccinated to protect themselves and their families.

“I want people to trust our physicians and our scientists and take care of each other based off that belief.”

(hōp) – expectation, faith, optimism

Heavyweight Hope: Local Boxer Refuses to Let Injury Keep Him Down for the Count

“Hope means everything for my health. If I know there’s a way to get better, I know I’ll do what it takes to get there.”

Cincinnati has a reputation for producing great boxers. Most start in the ring at a very young age. When Jeremiah Williams showed up at an amateur boxing gym at the age of 32, he was nearly turned away.

A banker by day, Jeremiah decided to try boxing because he learned his grandfather, whom he is named after, loved the sport.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Jeremiah laughs.

Time was not on his side. You can only box as an amateur up until age 35. As that birthday approached, Jeremiah’s coach encouraged him to try going pro.

He was all in. Jeremiah left the world of banking and launched a new career as a certified trainer at a boxing fitness club so he could devote more time to the sport.

Jeremiah’s pro record started with zero wins and eight losses. Undeterred, he continued to train until an injury put him on the ropes.

It wasn’t a punch that knocked him down. Instead, he was avoiding one. A quick pivot in his footwork created enough pressure to rupture his Achilles tendon.

Jeremiah turned to the team at UC Health Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, who determined he needed surgery. It would be Jeremiah’s first with Brian Grawe, MD, UC Health orthopaedic surgeon and associate professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the UC College of Medicine.

After a successful surgery, and with proper exercise, dedication to therapy and the right mentality, Jeremiah was able to get back to full strength in just six months. He even improved his boxing record to 2-9.

Jeremiah now had a promoter, manager and two coaches backing him. SIX matches won, all by knockout.

The momentum came to a stop once again in January 2020 during a sparring match for an upcoming bout. Jeremiah threw a punch that felt off. A return trip to Dr. Grawe confirmed a tear in his rotator cuff.

“The shoulder injury came at a time that I was having a lot of success as a full-time, all-in boxer with a great team,” Jeremiah says. But all of that paused so Dr. Grawe could repair and reattach Jeremiah’s tendons to his bone.

“He was confident that after surgery I would gain full recovery, and perhaps come back even stronger,” Jeremiah says. “When I was able to throw punches with speed and power around five months after surgery, I knew I was going to be alright.”

As a fighter, Jeremiah knows a thing or two about keeping his eye on the prize. He focused his hope on continuing his career as a professional boxer and returning to the ring as a better fighter.

“The UC Health care team showed me their hope for my full recovery by giving care instructions, aligning therapy and never having doubts that a full recovery would be achieved,” Jeremiah says.

Hip Preservation: Alternative to Replacement Keeps College Student Moving

Hip surgery is becoming more common across the U.S. You probably envision the typical patient as an older adult seeking pain relief from a lifetime of wear and tear.

Payton Whitt would not be your typical patient. She developed extreme pain in her right hip at just 22 years old. When most college students are looking forward to walking at their graduation ceremony, Payton just wanted to be able to walk independently on campus.

“A specific goal of mine was starting spring semester at college without the use of a walker,” Payton says. “I found hope in my physician and care team at the UC Health Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine.”

An MRI showed that Payton had a tear in the tissue that attaches to the edge of her hip socket. She also had hip dysplasia, a condition in which the hip socket is shallower than normal, creating instability and pain in the joint.

At UC Health, hip replacements are a last resort for young patients like Payton. UC Health surgeons have instead developed specialized expertise in precise, minimally invasive approaches for hip preservation that few surgeons have in their toolbox.

“They are very complex surgeries that most surgeons don’t have the experience or skills to perform well,” says Christopher J. Utz, MD, UC Health orthopaedic surgeon and assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the UC College of Medicine. “These procedures do typically have a longer recovery time than a traditional hip replacement but can be more beneficial in the long run.”

“While being treated, I looked forward to being pain-free, independent and accomplishing a full recovery,” Payton says. “I hoped to get back to my active normal self when treatment was finished.”

Dr. Utz partnered with Henry Claude Sagi, MD, director of Orthopaedic Trauma Surgery at UC Health and professor in the Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine at the UC College of Medicine, to perform Payton’s hip preservation surgery together.

Her treatment included a periacetabular osteoectomy (PAO), during which Dr. Sagi cut the pelvic bone around the hip socket to realign it and alleviate the stress on the hip joint ligaments and cartilage, as well as Dr. Utz repairing her labral tear.

“These procedures do typically have a longer recovery time than a traditional hip replacement, but can be more beneficial in the long run,” Dr. Utz says.

And they were especially beneficial for Payton. When spring semester rolled around,

she returned to college walking independently – no walker needed.

“Each day during recovery was an achievement for me,” Payton says. “I haven’t had any pain or discomfort. I am walking better than I have in years.”

(ō-vər-ˈkəm) – conquer, defeat, prevail

Mission Moment: Her Drive to Serve Others Saved Her Own Life

Ginny Wiltse has dedicated her life to serving others. Her nonprofit work focuses on helping the people of Madagascar overcome struggles with poverty. The island nation is one of the poorest on Earth with few resources for education and medical care.

In 2014, Ginny received devastating news that threatened her mission work. She was diagnosed with an aggressive form of tongue cancer. It would eventually spread to her head and neck.

Radiation treatments would not keep the cancer at bay. The prognosis was grim. With treatment options growing increasingly limited, Ginny was referred to the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center.

As the wife of a physician, Ginny has a deep appreciation for medical science. When the UC Cancer Center invited her to participate in a clinical trial of an investigational treatment, she agreed.

“The idea that something that had afflicted me, a treatment that might be useful or helpful to others, this was very exciting to me,” Ginny says. “It made joining a clinical trial not just about me, but about the possibility of helping someone down the road.”

The journey was difficult. Ginny was in pain and lost weight. But through it all, the people of Madagascar never left her heart. She continued to raise money to improve their lives.

More importantly, she never missed her annual trip to visit the nation she was so passionate about helping.

“Getting to Madagascar every year and being able to continue the work that I love was therapeutic,” Ginny says. “The UC Health team helped me do that and tailored my treatments so that I could make my yearly service trip.”

As fiercely as Ginny had been fighting for improved medical care for the people of Madagascar, her UC Health team was advocating behind the scenes for her ongoing treatment.

“We encountered multiple insurance approval obstacles and delays,” Ginny says. “My UC Health doctors went out of their way to advocate on my behalf, and they were successful in getting my treatments approved. I had complete faith in the recommendations the team made to me.”

Through hope and determination, Ginny’s health gradually improved. She made a stunning recovery because of her clinical trial. Her cancer is now in remission.

“I felt like my life was being taken over by the response to cancer,” Ginny says. “My husband and my medical team encouraged me to persist in the various therapies.”

Ginny’s advice to others to overcome worry is to stay focused on bigger things. ““Have a goal that’s bigger than you. If you can keep the focus off of yourself, you can do a lot,” Ginny says.

Second Opinion: The Life-Changing MRI that Restored His Vitality

“How much time do I have left?”

It was Christmas Eve when Randall Cody learned a biopsy came back positive for prostate cancer. The diagnosis was years in the making.

All the biopsies before this one kept coming back negative, but regular blood tests during Randall’s annual physicals showed that his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels were steadily rising.

PSA is a protein that can reveal early signs of prostate cancer. A healthy PSA is typically below 4. Randall’s was now at 11.

Randall was told his only options were radiation or removal of the prostate. Both options carry side effects that he wanted to avoid.

He sought two promising treatments outside the U.S. There were signs of progress until his PSA levels started rising again. He decided to move forward with the prostate removal surgery that he hoped to avoid.

“I felt completely overwhelmed when I was informed that my biopsy came back positive and that I did indeed have cancer,” Randall says.

The cancer was also starting to have physical impacts on Randall’s health. He was easily exhausted. Even mowing the lawn would drain all his energy.

Randall was referred to UC Health for pre-surgery planning, including an MRI. The news he received was not what he expected.

“After my MRI, I got a call from Dr. Verma at UC Health — she told me to cancel the prostatectomy and not to worry,” Randall says. “She’s a world-renowned radiologist and I trusted her option. She told me I had other options, and that put me at ease.”

Sadhna Verma, MD, is a UC Health radiologist and professor in the Department of Radiology at the UC College of Medicine. Dr. Verma is a member of the UC Cancer Center, UC Genitourinary Cancer Center and UC Multidisciplinary Prostate Cancer Clinic.

Dr. Verma discovered that Randall’s cancer was isolated to a rather elusive area of the prostate. She referred Randall to Abhinav Sidana, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Surgery at the UC College of Medicine and director of Urologic Oncology at UC Health.

Dr. Sidana is pioneering new approaches to prostate cancer that do not require complete prostate removal. Randall was a candidate for a newer treatment called focal cryotherapy with MRI guidance. It is an extremely precise approach that freezes cancerous cells to destroy them while sparing healthy tissue.

“Dr. Sidana explained my options and what he thought would work best for my situation,” Randall says. “This was an extreme burden off my shoulders.”

Six days after Dr. Sidana performed the procedure, Randall’s energy was returning. He and his wife took vacationing in Hawaii. They had been planning the trip for a long time and were thrilled they didn’t have to cancel.

“I felt like I was finally back to normal,” Randall says. “We went hiking, climbing mountains, surfing — having fun.”

In 2018, Randall’s PSA number was 18; now it falls between 4-5, which is a healthy score for a naturally enlarged prostate.

“Finding out it appeared I was cancer-free was a big day of celebration for me and my family,” Randall says.

“Mr. Cody was one of my first patients to have this procedure, and I’m grateful he had enough faith in someone like myself, telling him about a new treatment which I had just started offering, but I was confident it would help — and he believed in me,” said Dr. Sidana.

(ˈvik-tə-rē ) – triumph, success, win

Ring that Bell! Her Doctor’s Diligence Leads to Success Over Breast Cancer

“I felt like I had been given the most precious gift! The gift of life that only God himself could give. I’m beyond grateful to my health team and everyone who loved me back to wellness.”

Sherry Hughes is used to people turning to her for answers. As a meteorologist for WCPO 9 News, she keeps a watchful eye over Greater Cincinnati’s skies to provide warnings about severe weather and to help viewers plan their days.

When Sherry looked for her own health answers, she turned to a trusting relationship with Amy M. Thompson, MD, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the UC College of Medicine and a UC Health physician.

Regular mammograms had always come back clear for Sherry. But when she shared that her mother had died of breast cancer, Dr. Thompson recommended a breast MRI.

The MRI detected something suspicious. A follow-up ultrasound confirmed it. Sherry had breast cancer – specifically, invasive ductile carcinoma.

“I felt overwhelmed on my first visit to my oncologist because the information was coming at me faster than I could digest it,” Sherry says. “I overcame it with the help of my husband, Myron, who was my second set of ears and eyes.”

Sherry refused to be scared; instead, she took a deep breath and moved forward. Together with her husband, her family, friends and church, Team Sherry Hughes emerged and together they would defeat this.

Today, Sherry is in complete pathological remission. After treatments including chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and immunotherapy, her scans do not show any cancer or tumor. In fact, all tests show she is healthy and strong.

She will tell you that she takes one day at a time. She focuses on being healthy and doing whatever she can to stay that way. And she appreciates each day.

“I felt I had relief the day I rang the bell signaling chemo was over. That’s when I exhaled,” Sherry says.

“The ‘big win’ was when my post-chemo breast MRI showed I had a complete pathological response to the treatment. It worked!”